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Posts Tagged ‘Common Core Standards’

creation    Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford

Here’s a book title that I was surprised to find is not hyperbole. Science really is creating new life forms. Rutherford doesn’t mean cloning life forms we know. He means altering the structure and components of DNA and coming up with odd hybrids of life—such as a goat that excretes spider web silk in its milk.

The sorts of stories Rutherford tells are the ones that science fiction has often warned against, the monsters that come from the imagination of our Frankensteins. So, should we be afraid?

Rutherford, a geneticist, a writer and editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, and a presenter of programs for the BBC in the United Kingdom, is not particularly worried about the gains scientists have made in creating life. He regards this as “a golden age in biology.” This book, in part, takes the time to reassure the reader that all will be well. To do so, Rutherford even contends that the world’s best-known bogeymen (think Monsanto, for example) are not empowered to wreak havoc on our planet’s future.

Rutherford makes a good case for synthetic biology and synthetic genetics, but before he does, he reviews what is known about life and its origins. We take the tour of the history of life starting with the big bang and Higgs Boson (and the current experiment with the Large Hadron Collider to re-create that big bang), tour the development of the cell (and how mitochondria within cells point to a common origin of all life forms), and move through the structure of DNA, again, with a discussion of the evidence of a common origin for all life forms.

In addition, what it means to be alive is defined—well, sort of. A handy definition is “Life is a process that stops your molecules from simply decaying into more stable forms.” But I do like the longer version explaining Schrodinger’s argument; “Living systems are the continual maintenance of energy imbalance. In essence, life is the maintenance of disequilibrium, and energy as life uses it is derived from this inequity. . . . The entropy of the universe is bound only to increase, thereby ultimately creating a more balanced but less ordered existence.” Sounds almost philosophical, doesn’t it?

Rutherford tells the reader that “synthetic biology means different things to different people,” but explores it by looking at the world as a toolbox full of tools provided by evolution that are then available for creating new life-forms. One of the ways of creating these new life-forms is by altering DNA. DNA is shown to be a “data storage device” and scientists can now alter the available data.

Interesting  discussions of examples of synthetic biology include “Synthia,” a single synthetic cell created in 2010, and “Freckles” the goat, with her golden orb-weaver spider genetic code, which causes her milk to have spider silk in it. Of course, Rutherford discusses the value of these things—spider webs have important properties (they are very elastic and strong) that may be very useful in many applications.

There are reasons for man to explore changes in both plant and animal life. They have to do with feeding a hungry world as less and less land is arable in a more extreme global climate, and with medical advances that will save lives. But whether you agree with Rutherford that these changes are harbingers of a golden age or whether you want everything to go back to organic, it is important to know what is happening in our world. And Creation is a good place to start finding out.

High school housekeeping: I read this book partly because I am a curious creature and want to know about synthetic biology, but partly because I think it is exactly the kind of book that the designers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read—an ‘informational text’ if you will, one that has facts that could prove very useful to you.

Creation is very interesting and very informative. Rutherford’s writing is clear and he often uses analogies to language and to music to make points about science easier to understand. All of this is very helpful. So, would the average high school student pick this book up and read it, bringing delight to the lives of those Common Core Dr. Frankensteins?

Well—this is a book that many high school students would be fascinated by, especially those interested in becoming researchers or doctors. But it’s not easy, despite Rutherford’s lucid style. Students who have done well in biology class will have a much easier time with the discussion of the roles and components of DNA and RNA. Though not everyone is going to follow Rutherford’s argument for synthetic biology, those who can and do will be happily enriched.

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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring by Jennet Conant  irregulars

Most of us know Roald Dahl through his weirdly fun children’s stories. Even if you haven’t read those stories, you’ve probably seen some of the movies made from Dahl’s work—James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Willy Wonka (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But Dahl’s entire life was wildly interesting, and his stint as a British spy in the United States during World War II is as engaging a story as anything he wrote for children.

The British Security Coordination had a secret mission to get the United States involved in World War II. The Irregulars, as these British spies in America were known, were named after characters in Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries.

This might seem odd now, but at the time (1939-40), there were many Americans who were isolationists and didn’t believe that the war was a U.S. problem. Unfortunately, there were also some famous anti-Semitic people (the popular aviation hero Charles Lindberg among them) who were Nazi sympathizers. A Canadian spymaster named William Stephenson (nicknamed Intrepid) was tasked with making Americans believe that the war was a danger to them. He and the Irregulars were to create sympathy for the British, and with that sympathy, generate funds for the fight in Europe.

So what to do? Well, it might surprise those of us without connections to power, but a lot of the work was achieved on the ‘cocktail circuit,’ that is, at parties in the homes of the very rich and very powerful. The Irregulars would spread lies through influential people. These men had to be suave enough to be invited to such parties. Dahl was not only very good looking. He was also a war hero—a pilot in the Royal Air Force whose military career ended with a crash—and a great storyteller (a very useful skill at a dinner table full of strangers). He was not the only interesting man on the job. Handsome Ian Fleming, creator of the fictional spy James Bond—007—was among the group. Needless to say, he loved tools that contained secret weapons, such as a pen that ejected gas. Other Irregulars were willing to try out spy tools such as truth serum. (That was an experiment gone wrong—one of the many entertaining parts of the book.)

The Irregulars passed more than gossip. To get then President Roosevelt to push for loans (and the Lend-Lease Act) for the British, the BSC created a map of South America and made U.S. officials believe it was a Nazi product. It showed how Nazi Germany planned to split up South America, including the (then U.S. controlled) Panama Canal. In fact, they’d do just about anything, including sleeping with married women and passing on false information.

Most of what they did worked. Reading about allies who were secretly (well, sort of) working to alter the course of the U.S. policies is surprising fun. A lot of U.S. citizens might have resented this ‘spying’ if they had known about it. J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t too thrilled. But from our current perspective, it’s amusing stuff, and knowing the how and why of the BSC will help you learn about truly important events from World War II.

High school housekeeping: If your history teacher asks you to read nonfiction, particularly about WW II, this is a great choice. It’s a little longer than some choices at nearly 400 pages.  But you’ll see how a well-researched document can be highly entertaining. You’ll learn about the BSC, but you find information on so much more as well. And Dahl and his friend are so much larger than life—not always in a good way—that you’ll find them quite human and fallible while deeply admiring their talents and their place in history. You’ll encounter several famous people, get some interesting background on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and learn other facts of Dahl’s biography—his success in writing, helped along by a very rich American mentor, and his life with actress Patricia Neal. Not bad for a single book.

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That Used to Be Us—Links on looking to the future

Last thoughts on how the book connects to educators

Places to find more information

I’ve created three posts on where to look while we think about how we are changing—guideposts and cool stuff to use along the way. My goal is to have the positive, the negative, and the truth that lies between them. The first of the three posts was about online resources. The second was on books. This, the third, is a counterpoint to the idea (expressed in That Used to Be Us) that poverty has no effect on educational success—I thought it was important to get the other side of this issue.

Are We Really That Far behind other Industrialized Nations in Educating Our Kids and in Reading?

That Used to Be Us cites a study that others claim to debunk. Concerning poverty, there is much research to indicate that it is the overriding factor in student success. Although I didn’t mention the book Brain Rules in my last TUTBU post of recommended reading, it’s a good one, very worthwhile reading for educators. Its author, John Medina (developmental molecular biologist,  affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine,   director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University) comments on how home life affects learning:

Severe and chronic trauma (such as living with an alcoholic parent, or watching in terror as your mom gets beat up) causes toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kids’ brains. When trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible.

I realize this isn’t news to most of us–but I think it’s good to remind ourselves that experts do agree with the empirical evidence that we find in teaching every single day.

I asked Stephen Krashen (professor emeritus at the USC, linguist, educational researcher, activist) if I could print this statement of his online and he said yes. If you are interested in some of the research, it follows the statement.

Against National Standards and National Tests
Stephen Krashen

The movement for national standards and tests is based on these claims: (1)  Our educational system is broken, as revealed by US students’ scores on international tests; (2) We must improve education to improve the economy;  (3) The way to improve education is to have national standards and national tests that enforce the standards.

Each of these claims is false.

(1) Our schools are not broken. The problem is poverty. Test scores of students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools are among the best in world. Our unspectacular overall scores are due to the fact that the US has the highest level of child poverty among all industrialized countries (now over 21%, compared to high-scoring Finland’s 5%). Poverty means poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and lack of access to books, among other things. All of these negatively impact school performance.

(2) Existing evidence strongly suggests that improving the economy improves children’s educational outcomes. Yes, a better education can lead to a better job, but only if jobs exist.

(3) There is no evidence that national standards and national tests have improved student learning in the past.

No educator is opposed to assessments that help students to improve their learning. The amount of testing proposed by the US Department of Education in connection to national standards is astonishing, more than we have ever seen on this planet, and much more than the already excessive amount demanded by NCLB: Testing will be expanded to include all subjects that can be tested and more grade levels. There will be “interim” tests given through the year and there may be pretests in the fall to measure growth, defined as increases in standardized test scores, or “value-added” measures.

The cost of implementing standards and electronically delivered national tests will be enormous, bleeding money from legitimate and valuable school activities. New York City is budgeting a half a billion dollars just to connect children to the internet so that they can take the national tests. This extrapolates to about $25 billion nationally for this expense alone.

This money could be spent to protect children from the effects of poverty, i.e. on expanded and improved breakfast and lunch programs, school nurses (at present there are more school nurses per child in low poverty schools than in high poverty schools) and improved school and public libraries, especially in high-poverty areas.

Rather than spend on standards and tests, investing in protecting our children from the effects of poverty would raise test scores. More important, it is the right thing to do.

Some sources:

“Test scores of students from middle class homes …:  Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13; Bracey, G. 2009. The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. http://epicpolicy.org/publication/Bracey-Report. Berliner, D.  The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism, Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., & Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. In press. Tienken, C. 2010. Common core state standards: I wonder? Kappa Delta Phi Record 47 (1): 14-17.

“Poverty means poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and lack of access to books”: Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential:  Out-of-School Factors and School Success.  Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. http://epicpolicy.org/publication/poverty-and-potential;   Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership  55(4): 18-22.

Improving the economy ….:  Baker, K. 2007. Are international tests worth anything? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 101-104; Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way? American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.; Ananat, E., Gassman-Pines, A., Francis, D., and Gibson-Davis, C. 2011. Children left behind: The effects of statewide job less on student acbievement. NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) Working Paper No. 17104, JEL No. 12,16. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17104

There is no evidence that national standards and national tests have improved student learning in the past: Nichols, S., Glass, G., and Berliner, D. 2006. High-stakes testing and student achievement: Does accountability increase student learning? Education Policy Archives 14(1). http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v14n1/. OECD. Tienken, C., 2011. Common core standards: An example of data-less decision-making. Journal of Scholarship and Practice. American Association of School Administrators [AASA], 7(4): 3-18. http://www.aasa.org/jsp.aspx.

Testing in more subjects: The Blueprint A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. United States Department of Education  March 2010

In earlier and later grades: PARCC document:  http://www.parcconline.org/sites/parcc/files/PARCC%20MCF%20Response%20to%20Public%20Feedback_%20Fall%202011%20Release.pdf

Interim tests: Duncan, A. September 9, 2010. Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments — Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks to State Leaders at Achieve’s American Diploma Project Leadership Team Meeting: http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/beyond-bubble-tests-next-generation-assessments-secretary-arne-duncans-remarks-state-l. The Blueprint, (op. cit.) p. 11.

Value-added measures:
http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/secretary-arne-duncans-remarks-statehouse-convention-center-little-rock-arkansas (August 25, 2010). The Blueprint (op.cit.), p. 9.

New York City budget: New York Times, “In city schools, tech spending to rise despite cuts,” March 30, 2011.

School nurses: Berliner, 2009 (op. cit.)

Libraries: Krashen, S. 2011. Protecting students against the effects of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association Journal 46 (2): 17-21.

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